Past Present Podcast: Orlando – The City Beautiful, Histories of Violence, and Presidential Empathy

We Love Orlando

On this week’s Past Present podcast, Niki, Neil, and Natalia discuss the Orlando shooting, focusing on the history of the city, the attack’s place in the many histories of violence, and the role of presidential empathy in responding to national crises.

History of Orlando

The world is focused on Orlando after the horrific shooting at the Pulse Nightclub. Neil talked about what it meant for this tragedy to take place in his hometown, something he wrote about for Public Seminar this week. Natalia noted the references to Orlando in the musical Book of Mormon made humor of the city’s association with wholesome Disney World. Niki added that although Disney had a conservative reputation, it had hosted “gay days” at the Orlando theme park since 1991 much to the ire of conservatives at the time. Natalia shared how John Findlay’s history of Disneyland, Magic Lands, showed how the original park in Anaheim operated as a refuge from California’s hippie culture in the 1960s and offered discounts to heterosexual married couples. Niki observed how Orlando’s rising Hispanic population had shifted the politics of the region.

Histories of Violence

The attack on the Pulse Nightclub was the deadliest shooting in US history, but part of a long history of violence at gay establishments. Natalia noted how although many think of the 1969 Stonewall riot as launching the gay liberation movement, the historian George Chauncey’s book Gay New York showed how gay men and women had found community in gay bars since the 1890s. Niki shared the story of the 1973 arson of the UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay nightclub, which killed thirty-two people, the worst massacre of gay people before the Orlando shooting. Natalia recommended Richard Kim’s essay in the Nation that described how gay nightclubs served as a sanctuary for the LGBT community, particularly in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. Niki situated the Pulse Nightclub attack in the rise of lone wolf terrorism of the past decade. And Natalia mentioned the historian Jonathan Zimmerman’s recent editorial which noted the importance of acknowledging Islamic homophobia for understanding the different motivations for the Orlando shooter.

Presidential Empathy

In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, public officials have sought to communicate their empathy for the victims and their families. But what is the history of empathy? Neil explained the word had only been around since the early twentieth century, coming from a German psychological term. Although many credit Bill Clinton for making empathy a component of presidential politics, Niki saw Lyndon Johnson’s response to the Civil Rights Movement, particularly his Voting Rights Act address to Congress in 1965, as the origin of empathetic presidential politics. Neil contrasted Johnson’s empathetic response to black Americans with the example of contemporary Republican politicians who have refused to acknowledge the victims of the Orlando shooting were gay Latinos. Natalia noted the works of the historian James T. Sears showed how hard it had been for gay Southerners to create a community in a time when little empathy was shown to them.

What’s Making History

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